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A SPRING BREAK: The Malahat Skywalk takes you to new heights


The Malahat Skywalk towers high above the Saanich Inlet (photo supplied)


Victoria is the place to be in spring — a city in bloom where you can enjoy creative cuisine, cocktails and the great island outdoors!


Words and Photos

By CINDA CHAVICH

 


Visit Victoria in spring, the season of tree-lined streets, bursting with pink cherry blossoms, and waterfront patios awash in sunshine.


The busy tourist season just gearing up, so it’s a good time to take in some of the local sights in a relaxed island environment, whether you’re climbing to the top of the Malahat SkyWalk for the money shot or sharing a creative cocktail in the heart of the capital city.

 



A WALK IN THE SKY

The Malahat is a steep stretch of road connecting Victoria to the bucolic Cowichan Valley, one that locals love to both curse and celebrate.

It can be a white-knuckle drive in the middle of a winter storm but, when the sun is shining, there’s nothing as spectacular as the view from the top of this lofty stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. And that’s what prompted an entrepreneurial BC company to partner with the local Malahat First Nation to build Malahat SkyWalk, an attraction that gives visitors a glimpse of that Malahat magic.



The SkyWalk is not a typical walk in the woods — it’s an easy way to get high above the cedar and Douglas fir forest at the edge of the Saanich Inlet, for a panoramic view of the coastal islands and mountains beyond. Climbing the tower, along its gently spiraling boardwalk, tall trees are all around and soon we are looking down through the crowns to the forest floor, past twisting coppery trunks of big coastal arbutus, to the blue waters 250 meters below.


From the walkway connecting the tower to the forest you can look down through the trees to the inlet beyond

From the top, gazing across the Finlayson Arm where the Goldstream River meets the sea, you’re greeted with the same breezy updrafts that make this is a popular perch for bald eagles, soaring along the coast in search of fish to feed their newly-hatched broods.

Traveling northbound on Highway 1, we turn down the entrance road near the Malahat Summit. It takes us to the ticket office, but the tower is nowhere in sight.


A stroll through second growth forest leader to the tower

The SkyWalk Experience actually begins with a TreeWalk, an easy stroll along a wide trail dotted with interpretive signs and artwork, from Tanya Bub’s sculptural driftwood creatures (look for cougar and wolf, eagle and owl) to the current outdoor installation celebrating the work of Canadian painter Jean Paul Riopelle.


Look for Tanya Bub’s sculptural driftwood creatures along the trail

The short hike culminates in an elevated boardwalk that brings us to the impressive open-air structure at the third level, where we begin the climb to the viewing platform. Anchored to steel base plates on concrete footings and constructed of laminated Douglas fir columns that flare outward like an oversized shuttlecock, the massive spiral tower is also impressive for its relatively small forest footprint.


The trail takes you to the Skywalk tower, where you arrive at the third level via an elevated boardwalk.

The SkyWalk has been called a “spectacle” and it certainly is, especially on busy weekends with busloads of tourists arriving to trek around and around to the top, and others lining up for the quick, thrilling descent down the corkscrew slide. It’s 10 storeys up — about a 20-minute walk that’s also wheelchair accessible — and mere seconds sliding to the base, but many are prepared to do the climb repeatedly for the adrenaline rush.



Climb the walkway that encircles Skywalk slide - or step onto the mesh Adventure Net at the top

Today, Michelle George is cheerily sending sliders of all ages down the stainless-steel tube, on “slow” or “fast” mats, the descent to the ground level a mere 10-12 seconds.

“Have fun!” she chirps her bubbly send off with a gentle nudge, the echoes of sliders’ whoops and shrieks bouncing back up to us through the dark twisty tunnel.



Michelle George offers sliders “slow” or “fast” mats for the speedy thrill of a 10-second descent to the base.

I’m not inclined to take the plunge but there a steady line of customers — one that’s short in the off season but can reach an hour-plus wait on busy summer days.

“I’ve sent a 97-year-old down — four times,” George says, explaining that the speed of the descent is affected by the texture of the sliding mat and the air temperature, up to 25 km per hour and fastest in the cooler seasons.


At the very top we reach the breezy, open-air platform to take in the 360-degree views and step out onto the bouncy mesh Adventure Net suspended in space, for an added vertigo-inducing sensation.



Inspired by similar viewpoint structures around the world, David Greenfield and Trevor Dunn of A. Spire by Nature — the developers behind the ambitious Sea to Sky Gondola in Whistler — saw this lofty spot as another place to elevate tourists with a unique attraction. The Malahat Nation partnered with the company in the SkyWalk project, which is located on future Malahat Treaty Settlement Lands.

The company has a license and lease with the provincial government for use of 170 acres of land, which is being held by the province in reserve for future negotiations with the Nation.



On a clear day, the panoramic view stretches out across the meandering inlet to the Saanich Peninsula, the Gulf Islands and the snowy peak of Mt. Baker on the horizon in Washington state. But even when the clouds roll in (SkyWalk is open year-round), it’s an easy way for anyone to get off the road for an hour or two and see the island from a new angle.



There’s also the lure of a patio lunch from the food kiosk at the base of the tower, serving burgers and beer, or a creamy Softy’s vegan “ice cream” sundae, a cosy outdoor firepit, and some retail therapy in the gift store.




To encourage families to visit during spring break, there’s a Kids Visit Free promotion (March 9 to April 1, 2024), along with an Easter Egg Scavenger Hunt and Sasquatch sightings (March 20 to April 1).

If you’d like stay longer, and bed down with an equally spectacular bird’s eye view, check into the Villa Eyrie Resort, perched high up on a nearby ridge above the highway. Or just reserve a table their Alpina restaurant, a great place or European-inspired plates, including a selection of classic schnitzel.

Traveling northbound along the Malahat from Victoria there are a couple of highway pullouts and viewpoints that offer a similar view across the Saanich Inlet, one with a small totem pole and a panel describing the history of the Cowichan region. It’s free, but you don’t get the amazing architecture or the high angle views, and you do get the noise of highway traffic.

The SkyWalk is literally a step above, a way to support the small Malahat Nation that claims this land, while sharing a unique with experience other awestruck visitors, at the top of our island world.

 

OTHER ISLAND ACTIVITIES

 

Get outside at Goldstream Park




It’s always amazing to see the circle-of-life played out every year at Goldstream Provincial Park, with thousands of Chum salmon returning to the Goldstream River to spawn from in late fall.

But spring is a lovely time to visit this provincial park, too, with its massive old-growth trees, impressive waterfall and largest concentration of Bald Eagles in Canada — all just 16 km from downtown Victoria and accessible along wide, flat trails. Stop at the Goldstream Nature House for more information, guided walks and other educational programs.

Or for a little more adventure, hike the challenging Mount Finlayson Trail and camp in the impressive provincial campground, real wilderness that’s just moments away from the civilization of suburbia.

 

Taste the capital’s cocktail culture


Creative cocktails at End Dive

Victoria is famed for its cocktail culture and there are several local distillers contributing to this growing phenom.

Sheringham Distillery is one of the local pioneers, known both for it’s seaweed-infused Seaside Gin and the zero-alcohol line of Lumette products. The company recently moved its production from Sooke to Langford, with a new tasting room that’s open daily. Check out their website for upcoming Happy Hour weekend events featuring local chefs.

The art of the cocktail is also on display at the plush new Humboldt Bar, an homage to the street’s namesake, explorer, philosopher and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. And for visitors (and locals) there’s the aptly named new Tourist Wine Bar, dedicated to by-the-glass (or bottle) natural wines.



 


Dine in award-winning restauarants

Victoria is a food-obsessed town — with more restaurants, eateries, pubs and bars per capita than any other city in Canada.

So, it’s no surprise that Victoria restaurants keep making awards lists — the latest being Ugly Duckling and Marilena Café, both among enRoute magazine’s Top 30 finalists on its best new restaurants in Canada list.


Marilena named one of the Top 10 new restaurants in Canada in 2023



Asian-inspired starters at Ugly Duckling

The former is a hip new space at the centre of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, with chef/owner Corbin Mathany offering innovative tasting menus, all featuring hyper-local ingredients and celebrating the Asian history of the locale. At Marilena (named one of the top 10 restaurants in Canada by Air Canada’s enRoute), the stunning restaurant and raw bar from Vancouver’s Top Table Group, chef Kristian Eligh oversees an impressive kitchen and menu to match, ranging from small plates and sushi to chilled seafood towers, whole grilled branzino and Japanese Wagyu beef.

More noteworthy new spots to explore include the funky and locally-focused End Dive, with its handmade pasta and creative cocktails, the expanded farm-to-table dinner menu at vegetable-forward Nourish Kitchen, and the casual bakery cafe Tombo, from Crust Bakery’s chef Tom Moore.


Beautiful and delicious hand made pasta from the creative chefs at End Dive


Check out Chinatown

Spring is Sakura Season in Victoria and Chinatown is the place to see some of the original cherry trees in bloom, gifted by the Japanese community nearly a century ago. 




Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada and several buildings dating to the late 1800s are still part of the lively streetscape. Visit the newly opened Victoria Chinatown Museum, located in Fan Tan Alley, a skinny street where gambling and opium dens were once as common as the chic restaurants, bakeries and cafes that now make Chinatown a popular place to hang out. 



Try BBQ pork from Loy Sing, the longest continuously running Chinese shop in North America with 130 years of history, and browse the rare, imported teas at Silk Road Tea. Or get an authentic Mexican taco at Maiiz, where the tortillas are handmade using the traditional nixtamalization process, then have a perfect French pastry at La Roux Patisserie.

A walking tour is a great way to explore any city and Chinatown has two excellent choices — Off the Eaten Track does a tasty, food-focussed Hip and Hidden Chinatown + Old Town Tour walking tour, while you’ll hear all of the historic stories on a Chinatown Walk with John Adams of Discover the Past, author of the definitive new book on Chinatown, Chinese Victoria: A Long and Difficult Journey.


Visit the Chinese Canadian Museum or take a walking tour to learn about Canada's oldest Chinatown



For more information about travel in and around Victoria visit Tourism Victoria


A version of this feature appeared in the Vancouver Sun newspaper


©Cinda Chavich 2024


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